Stop Hugging My Baby When She Says No


Cute-Little-Black-Girls-Hairstyles

My daughter, at only two years old, is a child who owns herself from head to toe. Before I became a mother, it never occurred to me that children are autonomous little people and not personal belongings of their parents. But as “Bean” grows and asserts herself more often, I’m learning that she is a force of her own will. So what’s the problem? The rest of the community sees her as a doll, not a person.

It was easy to overlook my daughter’s personhood while she was an infant and couldn’t speak. As a toddler, however, she can state definitively what she does and doesn’t want. And one thing she’s certain about is this: she doesn’t want you touching her without her permission.

And by “you, ” I mean everyone, including her own mother. Bean has these brown chipmunk cheeks that invite nibbles and kisses. One day, I leaned in to plant a smooch on her face, and she cried, “No kiss!” I looked at her in surprise and then I kissed her cheek anyway. I’m the parent, right? The ensuing meltdown was epic. She was genuinely upset that I disobeyed her wishes.

The incident wasn’t isolated. If I hugged her without warning, she would push at my chest, “No hug, Mommy! No hug!”

I admit that her rejection stung for a while once I realized she wasn’t being playful. I wondered what I, an enthusiastic hugger, would do with a child who shunned my affection. What child doesn’t want to be held by her mother? Her growing independence meant she could identify when she wanted to accept physical touch and communicate that.

To my embarrassment, that communication also extended to her interactions with other people. The more she becomes self-aware, she grows wary of people she doesn’t know. She stares, unsmiling, at their grinning faces and refuses to say “Hi” on command. And if they touch her, she recoils as if their hands are dirty. This embarrasses them, so they try harder. I have offered excuses for her behavior and hurried her away more times than I can count.

But it occurred to me to treat my daughter like an adult person when it comes to physical contact: respectfully. I asked her one day, “May I give you a hug?” She nodded and threw her arms around my neck. I even got a free kiss out of the deal. When I respect her boundaries, she is affectionate on her own terms and shows love in a way that feels natural to her.

That’s not to say that she always tells me yes. Sometimes, the answer to my question is still, “No hug, Mommy!” I have learned not to take her declination personally. After all, it’s not about me, is it? What message would I be sending if I showed her that her own mother did not care to honor her (very reasonable) wishes? She is teaching me that I am not entitled to her body, as I hope to teach her in regards to sexual relationships in the future.

We often discuss the problem of entitlement in regards to women’s rights, but children are treated like community property from the womb. People intrinsically feel they have the right touch your belly because you’re merely the pack mule for the precious bundle inside of it. The intrusion doesn’t cease after birth. Some random woman once touched my baby’s face while I was grocery shopping and I was livid at her presumptuousness.

A stranger touching your child is an easy target for parental wrath. But what about those closer to you like church members, neighbors, and family members? Last month one well-meaning neighbor spent a full five minutes trying to tickle my daughter and make her smile. Not once in those five minutes did she listen to the express “No!” and non-verbal cues Bean exhibited. That will not happen again.

I have come to the conclusion that as a parent, it is my responsibility to tell others to respect my daughter’s boundaries. I must be her fiercest, most vocal advocate until she is old enough for people to stop seeing her as a doll and value her autonomy.

Friends, family, and citizens of the world: Don’t hug or kiss my daughter without asking. I am no longer apologizing for her behavior toward you. If she says no, she’s not “precocious” or “sassy”; she is a small person who has the right to say no to being touched. And if you fail to comprehend her very clear wishes, or even her unclear ones, I will be more than happy to translate toddler language into a very adult conversation with you: Stop touching my kid.

Dara Mathis is a freelance writer, editor, and poet who lives in Georgia with her husband and daughter.  Her writing interrogates the politics of respectability for women, concepts of femininity, motherhood, and the intersection of race and gender. You can catch her tweeting reckless acts of punctuation on Twitter @dtafakari and at daratmathis.wordpress.com.

Leila

About Leila

Leila is the founding editor of Baby and Blog. She splits her time between editing hair and culture site, Black Girl with Long Hair, whipping up butters at BGLH Marketplace, and writing here. She adores her husband and two kids, her parents and her friends. But she hates Chicago weather although she is slowly coming to peace with it...


  • Dananana

    This was a great read–gave me lots of food for thought. I remember being told to hug, kiss, or otherwise demonstrate affection for people that I didn’t want to as a child…and I wonder if that disrespect of my body autonomy led to some of the issues I have now as an adult. Definitely going to follow this mindset if/when I have little ones of my own.

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  • http://sweetsensiblescents.com Carole Grayson

    This is an ‘ownership of my body’ issue and the right thing to do. My daughter has a hard time at family functions (lots of hugs from folks she has never met). We have a family reunion coming up so ugh, poor kiddo.

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  • http://www.mytwintopia.com Yetunde

    I’m recently learning to accept this with my 3 year olds as well.

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  • Julie Roberts Towe

    Yes! I agree that this is such an important lesson. It’s one I have tried to teach my girls. At first, I think my husband felt it was wrong of them to pull away when he tried to hold them so he could explain things. He certainly meant no harm, he just wanted them to listen to what he was saying. But, as a woman, I saw it differently. Girls need to feel empowered to say “no” and demand their space, even if there isn’t any bad intent directed at them. They also need to feel like their voice matters, so I allow my kids to disagree with me. I listen to them and don’t consider it back-talk just because they speak emotionally. We practice saying what we need to say and they become more at ease when disagreeing, which minimizes how emotional it makes them feel to do it. They may be wrong, and I’ll point out why, but I’ll never tell them not to voice their concerns.
    This post is fantastic. Your daughter is so lucky to have you on her side.

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  • Chantal

    I totally love this article! I don’t have children of my own, but I teach small children. I also remember when I was a child that some people would take the liberty of kissing and hugging on me and getting offended when I pulled away from them and wiped my face with disgust. Now that I’m an adult, I love children enough to respect their boundaries. People look at me crazy when I ask a three year old, “May I have a hug?”, and if they say no or back away, I say, “Okay, that’s fine.” And I don’t kiss other people’s children at all. It’s not cute to force that on a child who doesn’t want it….and a child IS allowed to not want it.

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  • Ms. Marcy

    I understand the long term benefits of no being no for hugs. I only wonder if teaching children to reach out their hand as a gesture for a handshake might be a better socially acceptable lesson for the children and the adults.

    I ask all kids if it is ok to hug them. If they say no, then I reach out my hand and say, ” it’s still great to meet you”. Most of the time the child will come back later and ask could they give me a hug. Now, these children are mostly family members or children of friends. Although I am a teacher, I rarely hug a student unless there is an emotional breakdown.

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  • Teeky

    It’s amazing the lessons that we can learn from small children if we’re sensitive enough to listen. This article hits the nail on the head. I was recently reminded of this lesson when an adorable 3-y/o, whom I’ve cherished since she was in diapers, suddenly recoiled when I went to pick her up as I usually do. Ooooh. Riiiight. Now I just stoop down to her level and if she feels inclined to hug me, YEAH! If not, maybe next time. Great article, Dara.

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    • http://trulytafakari.com Truly Tafakari

      Thank you 🙂 Being a parent in general is an exercise in getting your toes stepped on and walking through it anyway lol.

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  • Lala

    Thanks very much for this! I have the opposite problem–trying to get my toddler to understand that sometimes strangers (both kids and adults) do not automatically want to return her hugs or kisses, and that people need some physical boundaries.
    She doesn’t get angry, yet, when her affections aren’t returned, but I’m sure that’s coming soon.

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  • WT

    Good article. I’ve taught my 4yr old daughter that she doesn’t have to touch anyone she doesn’t want to. Some adults have a hard time with this, and don’t hide their disapproval. However, I do insist that she verbally greet people, as there’s no excuse for rudeness.

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  • Rose

    PREACH.

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  • Elyse

    This is an awesome article and definitely something I will keep in mind with my 2 yr. old from now on, There have been moments where she doesn’t want to give family members hugs and kisses and that’s ok. Although, as stated in the article there are some adults who seem to find an issue with this, it’s still my daughter’s right to say no and affirm that she doesn’t want to be touched.

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  • Kael

    I have to say that reading through this reminded me quite a lot of a child with Autism and that could certainly be a contributing factor to her dislike for human contact. Very glad to see that you’re nurturing her and accepting the boundaries she’s put up.

    Many wouldn’t.

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  • Sula Oshun Peace

    Love love love this article. So so important. This is the wave of parenting. respect your children from birth. They are light beings from another dimension, special because of their newness of earth and worthy of special consideration. (thumbs way up, Mom)

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  • DD

    Great article. We are so unconscious of the myriad ways in which we teach our children from birth how to hand over their inner authority to “well meaning”, boundary annihilating adults. When my 10 year old daughter was sent to the nurse’s office for a “well meaning” scoliosis exam, she refused to take off her shirt. The nurse called me and expressed concern that my daughter was having body image issues and asked me if she had an eating disorder. I was absolutely shocked. When I asked her to give me more details about the incident, I informed her that my daughter did exactly what she has been taught to do. The nurse was offended by my response and went to the principal. I was called in for a meeting and shared my perspective with the principal. As a result, a policy change was made in which parents are notified prior to scoliosis screening so they can have a conversation with their child before they are asked to strip down for a stranger without consent.

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    • Raichu

      You mean you WEREN’T already notified beforehand for scoliosis screenings? o.0

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  • LeeAnn Revis

    BEAUTIFUL!!!! When we empower our children, when we treat them as humans, they are able to fulfill their full potential. My parenting style has been very different than that of others, but in honoring my children’s wishes, it empowered them and gave them confidence. it cultivated a relationship based on mutual respect- they did not feel the need to rebel or lie or connive. I often would ask, what do you think? How do you feel about that? My youngest is a 17 year old girl that looks much like the picture on the article. She is a strong, smart, confident young woman that I adore (most of the time! lol). I can’t explain how, or why, but in recognizing her humanity, the personhood housed within her child sized body, it empowered her better self. It happened in each of my four children.

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  • Tigress

    This is something I do at conventions and dress up. Parents love taking pictures of me with their kids, especially when I’m doing a princess or superhero character. But sometimes, the kids are shy and don’t want to come near me, even though they are excited to see me initially.

    When that happens, I get down to eye level with the child and talk to them directly, which assures them they are in control of the interaction, not the parents or me. If they utterly refuse and the parents insist on a picture, I ask them not to force their child, since they are clearly uncomfortable. I’ll still pose for a picture so their child has a momento, but I’m not going to let parents force their children to interact with me.

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  • starsandspice

    How about giving her some alternatives? She’s expressing herself the only way she knows how, but maybe instead of hugging grandma or teacher, she could offer a handshake instead? Or if she doesn’t want to be touched at all, just a nice greeting like “hello” or “how are you?”

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    • http://www.suite369.com/ MizRik

      I’m sure you mean well, but it’s not a toddler’s job to come up with alternatives for adult behavior. It’s no different than an adult refusing another adult’s advances… No means no and is a complete sentence.

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  • Sandra L Mort

    I’ve held this position since my first was old enough to express preferences. It turns out that she’s got trouble with physical contact in many situations. So, yeah, I might only get a hug every 12-18 months, but I know she MEANS it. My mother in law, on the other hand, gets hugs while my daughter looks miserable. I don’t understand how MIL feels like this is a positive thing, but she does. I don’t intervene anymore, though, because my daughter is 17 and can speak for herself.

    My hope is that my four children have enough of a sense of personal autonomy to expect people to respect NO and are able to use this to stay safe.

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  • Concerned Senior

    Evidently it starts early. If a baby turns their head away when you are playing with them, it may mean that they need a break from the stimulation. It is supposed to correlate with ADHD when the adults consistently do not respect that. This I read in a book about trauma which described results of psychological research.
    It seems to me that a child should understand by the time they get to kindergarten how to greet people and the importance of doing so in appropriate circumstances. 2 years old seems too early to me to enforce that.

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  • Samantha Everett

    As a person who has experience (even as an adult) with people not respecting my autonomy, and as a person with extreme tactile sensitivity… I sympathize with your daughter.

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    • Raichu

      What’s interesting to me is I don’t think this bothered me nearly as much as a kid, but as I’ve gotten older touch from strangers/co-workers/acquaintances has gotten more and more distasteful to me. I don’t like it. I flinch away. If you don’t get the hint, I will tell you to stop touching me. I’ll do it nicely if you’re someone I like, but I maintain my boundaries and I can’t believe how many people think it’s okay to just put your hands on someone else’s body without permission.

      Definitely will be respecting my future children’s boundaries the same way.

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      • Robyn

        There are a lot more cold Un effect on ate people around today than many years ago this a the problem with the world as people physically distance themselves from each other there is less love and caring in the world it’s all about me and my wants now days and people don’t care about each other anymore

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  • Nope

    Definitely agree with the content of the article though I feel it should also be extended to teaching children that they need to accept rejection of their advances to others. After all, it’s important people learn that their body is their own from a young age but it is equally important that they learn OTHERS bodies are not theirs.

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  • Teyvon Washington

    Yes, lets all encourage our kids to develop anti-social behavior and scream rape every time someone wants to shake her hand. Sounds very healthy.

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    • Raichu

      Not wanting to be touched is not anti-social, and nobody has mentioned rape except you.

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      • Robyn

        Not having any kind of social interaction with others is encouraging kids to be antisocial and become cold and uncaring and un loving towards people in general it’s an all about me society and no one wants to share anymore so the world is becoming uncaring and cold because kids aren’t encouragedoing
        to be loving and caring now

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  • lag8

    What an excellent article. One of my family members would get mad that my daughter pulled away when she tried to force her to hug or sit on her lap.

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  • Robyn

    Loads of molly coddling smother mothers helicopter parents that bring up kids to be fragile and scared of the world and everyone and everything in it

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    • Kate Smith

      This is not about teaching fear, or in any way moddlycoddling. It’s about respect. Are children somehow not entitled to basic respect?

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  • http://www.somesecrets.info/ Jayneen Sanders

    I totally agree! You might enjoy my book for 2 to 8 year olds ‘No Means No! ‘ all about body boundaries and consent. By the way my daughter number 3 is not a big ‘hugger’ and it is hard a times but I respect her boundaries. ‘http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=dp_byline_sr_book_1?ie=UTF8&text=Jayneen+Sanders&search-alias=books&field-author=Jayneen+Sanders&sort=relevancerank

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  • nwanyi

    I never invite or ask children that I do not already have,a relationship with for a hug or a kiss I don’t know them they don’t know me. And routinely I don’t hug or kiss strangers and would certainly not want any child to learn that behavior from me.

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